Mr. Jiang, the politician

November 06, 1997

The Seattle Times said in an editorial Nov. 4:

CHINESE President Jiang Zemin is a heck of a politician.

He is so deft that after nine days of not giving an inch on human rights, trade, Taiwan, nuclear proliferation or the environment, he actually had some Americans thinking they'd heard a discreet apology for the 1989 slaughter at Tiananmen Square.

Of course, he'd said no such thing. Mr. Jiang is not going to repudiate events that set him on the path to power. But he is in control, and he used the ruffles and flourishes of a formal White House welcome to burnish his authority.

Twenty-five years after President Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique in Beijing that resumed modern contacts, China has been transformed by cultural and business ties to the West.

China is still a communist dictatorship, but economic reforms have introduced the prosperity and aspirations that eventually turned Taiwan and South Korea into vigorous democracies.

Nixon's legacy is that the benefits of engaging the most populous nation on Earth far outweigh any possible gains from the policy of containment sought by a spectrum of political interests here at home.

The United States and China prepare for the 21st century oddly unsure what to do with one another.

China craves international respect, but cannot articulate a role for itself on the global stage. The most inflated estimates of the country's military spending is an eighth of what this country spends, and most of it is aimed at modernization. Few regional alarms are sounding about an expansionist China.

For its part, the United States is struggling to define its dealings with China. The Clinton administration works to keep human rights in the forefront of discussions, ever mindful that our European and Asian trading partners, including Japan, are not making it an issue.

Mr. Jiang heard blunt, heartfelt talk from Mr. Clinton and 'N Republican leaders in Congress about the importance of human rights, so he must know the theme is not a negotiating ploy. But both parties also understand their corporate patrons' desire to do business with China.

If the United States presses China on trade, it would be acting virtually alone. Cold War strategies of withholding technology, bolstering military alliances and arming regional allies do not work according to old scripts.

Even Taiwan opposes trade restrictions that cramp its prosperous relations with an avowed enemy.

Promoting China onto the world stage, where it must abide by the standards, regulations and rules accepted by other nations, may be the most civilizing influence.

China is in the midst of another cultural revolution; it will take time, but change is under way. No great vision is required or expected of Mr. Jiang, but he is enough of a politician to know which way the wind is blowing.

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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